Black History Month is not only a time for celebrating the achievements of Black people in Canada and around the world, but also a time to reflect on Black heritage and culture. Following the protests that took place in the United States last year in response to the unjust murder of George Floyd, this year’s Black History Month has great potential to open doors and start conversations about what it truly means to be Black in 2021. To commemorate Black History Month, here are some Black artists whose work has contributed to the enrichment of Black culture.
Augusta Savage (1892–1962)
Augusta Savage was an American sculptor recognized as a pioneering figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a groundbreaking movement in the early 20th century where the New York neighbourhood of Harlem became known as a cultural mecca for African-American artists, writers and musicians. Savage was born in Florida and educated in New York, where she later moved to begin a career as a portrait sculptor. She created busts of many notable figures, including civil rights activist and protest leader W.E.B. Du Bois.
Savage paved the way for many Black artists by establishing the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. Shortly after, she was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair to create a sculpture symbolizing African-American contribution to art. She spent two years working on her largest piece, The Harp, a 16-foot high sculpture made of painted plaster that depicted 12 Black singers as the strings of a harp, supported by the hand of God in place of a foot pedal. When the World’s Fair closed, it was demolished by bulldozers.
Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
Romare Bearden was an American artist who combined painting and collage to create stunning pieces influenced by African art—particularly traditional African masks and textiles—and the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden was born in North Carolina and attended schools such as Boston University, New York University (NYU) and the Sorbonne in Paris. For nearly 30 years, he worked as a social worker and devoted his evenings and weekends to his art.
In addition to visual art, Bearden was also an accomplished writer who published works such as A History of African American Artists: From 1972 to the Present, The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden and Six Black Masters of American Art. His work can be seen at many museums and galleries all over the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA).
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
Jacob Lawrence was an American painter whose work was influenced by various cultural movements in African-American history, such as the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.
Born in New Jersey, he moved to Harlem with his family at 12 years old. His interest in art, especially painting, began in childhood, but was met with several barriers. During the Great Depression, he was forced to drop out of high school and work several labour jobs—from planting trees to building dams—in order to support his family. Eventually, he found his way to the Harlem Community Art Center, where he began painting series of the lives of integral figures in African-American history, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolutionary and founder of the Republic of Haiti. His painting style, using geometric shapes and bright colours, was self-described as “dynamic cubism”. Lawrence’s work documenting the African-American experience made him one of the first nationally recognized Black artists.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American painter who was born and raised in New York. He was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent and spoke fluent English, French and Spanish. At the age of eight, he was hit by a car and suffered a broken arm. As he recovered, his mother gave him a copy of the medical text, Gray’s Anatomy, where he was deeply inspired by the detailed illustrations of the human body.
In his late teens, he was forced out of his home and began living a life of poverty on the streets of New York. He began spray painting graffiti on structures in Lower Manhattan, using the tag “SAMO” (shorthand for “Same Old Sh*t”) to mark his work. The SAMO project led him to pursue art seriously and his work began appearing in galleries all over New York during the 1980s. He later became a close friend and collaborative partner of Andy Warhol and worked with him to produce pieces that combined Basquiat’s graffiti scrawl over Warhol’s pop imagery.
Tragically, Basquiat died of an accidental drug overdose at the young age of 27. He is remembered as one of the most influential figures of contemporary art.
Kara Walker (1969–Present)
Kara Walker is a California-born artist whose work captures the African-American experience primarily through her signature style: cut-paper silhouettes.
Walker studied art at the Atlanta College of Art and later the Rhode Island School of Design and made her artistic debut in 1994 with a 25-foot long piece titled Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. The piece was inspired by the epic Civil War-era novel Gone With the Wind, written by Margaret Mitchell.
According to Walker, "The history of America is built on...inequality, this foundation of a racial inequality and a social inequality. And we buy into it. I mean, whiteness is just as artificial a construct as blackness is."
Since then, she has used the technique of silhouettes to depict a critical narrative of the past while exploring the nature of themes such as race, identity, sexuality and gender.
By Camille Hombrebueno